Democratic oversight of intelligence and security: some reflections

Published: 11 September 2014

Andrew Neal reports on the ‘Security in Scotland’ publication on intelligence and security oversight in an independent Scotland. The report notes that in order to ensure effective domestic oversight, an independent Scotland would need more politicians. 

Today my colleagues and I have published our fourth report, on the subject of ‘Intelligence and security oversight in an independent Scotland’, as part of our research seminar series ‘Security in Scotland, with or without constitutional change’. These are my personal thoughts on its implications.

With the real possibility of a yes vote in just over a week, it goes without saying that the referendum would only be the beginning of the long and complex task of turning Scotland into an independent country. Most discussions of 'the day after' have considered the nature of the negotiating process and how to divide up the assets of the UK. But further ahead would be the more profound task of creating the constitution of an independent Scotland. This would not only mean writing a legal document, but also deciding, among other things, the structure of the Scottish state, government and parliament. In theory, anything is possible. For example, there is no reason why an independent Scotland would have to continue with the current Scottish parliament structure, with 129 MSPs in a single chamber. I believe we need to start thinking about these questions now.

My research role in the Future of Scotland and the UK programme has been to investigate the security implications of Scottish independence. I've done that with several colleagues by running a series of research seminars. Over the last year, we've invited intelligence and security experts from across the UK and Europe, including former senior figures from the UK intelligence community. We’ve discussed the current intelligence and security apparatus of the UK and Scotland, the threats an independent Scotland might face, how similar European countries manage their security affairs, and most recently, how an independent Scotland would provide democratic oversight of its proposed new intelligence agency.

Speaking for myself as a security researcher, it is only the question of democratic oversight that gives me real cause for concern. I'm writing a book about security politics in the UK parliament, and I've become familiar with the difficulties posed by this issue. At Westminster, members of parliament have historically played a minimal role in the intelligence and security arrangements of the UK. Before the late 1980s it was taboo for governments even to mention the existence of MI5 or MI6 in pubic, let alone for parliament to hold those agencies to account. Things have been changing, with parliament taking a greater interest in these matters, but democratic intelligence and security oversight remains a difficult issue.

The problem is that much of what the security and intelligence services do cannot be discussed in public. This is why the Intelligence and Security Committee meets behind closed doors. When the ISC was created in 1994, a decision was made to keep it separate from other parliamentary committees, with its membership approved by the prime minster and its reports approved by the government. The ISC has recently been reformed to boost its investigatory powers and bring it closer to parliament. But especially since the Edward Snowden revelations about the activities of GCHQ, it remains under great pressure to prove its legitimacy and effectiveness.

The ISC faces a number of fairly intractable difficulties in this task. Meeting in secret means it cannot easily demonstrate the value of its work. It cannot publicly show how critical it has been of the security and intelligence services, or that it knows what they are really up to. And it cannot disprove the suspicion that it is too close to them. Because the members of the ISC need to be trusted with state secrets, membership tends to favour senior government loyalists and former security-related ministers. If and when an intelligence scandal erupts, the members of the ISC have to explain what they knew, if they knew then why they didn't raise the alarm, how critical they had been of the practices in question, and whether they were in effect sanctioning the legally marginal or morally dubious. All this builds an impression among some that the ISC lacks critical independence. And because the ISC members can't talk openly about their work, it is difficult for them to defend themselves publicly.

In short, members of the ISC somehow need to display three qualities, without being able to directly demonstrate them. First, not to be too close to the government or the intelligence services. Second, to be experienced and knowledgeable enough about intelligence and security not to be hoodwinked by the agencies. And third, to be trusted by the public and their parliamentary peers. The ISC has at times struggled with all three.

Drawing on these sorts of issues, the report we've published today outlines some difficult challenges for intelligence and security oversight in an independent Scotland. The report is a summary, produced by the project organisers, of the key points raised by our seminar speakers in their capacity as experts.

Speaking for myself as a security researcher, and not for my project colleagues or our speakers, I think the report points towards a rather serious conclusion. The Scottish parliament in its current form may not be adequate to the task of providing intelligence and security oversight. I can't comment on other policy areas, but in terms of providing a Scottish equivalent of the ISC, the Scottish parliament is too small, too controlled by the executive, under resourced, and lacking in intelligence and security expertise.

My view is that if Scotland votes for independence, policymakers and civil society need to start debating the case for reconstituting the Scottish parliament, including increasing the number of MSPs or creating an upper chamber to bring in more varied expertise, perhaps even from former Scottish MPs. Despite the apparent groundswell of enthusiasm for Scottish independence, there seems to be little desire for more politicians or rethinking the structure of the Scottish parliament. My research on parliamentary security politics and the security aspects of Scottish independence makes me concerned for the balance between the powers of the new Scottish state and the ability of parliament to keep it in check. This is not an argument for 18 September 2014, but for the day after a possible ‘yes’ vote, when the work would really begin.

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